Upon reading the poem called "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," a few observations have suggested themselves to me, which, if they fall within the compass of your plan, are at your service.
Although this delightful work does not rise to the sublime heights of epic poetry, yet it is never disgraced by the absurdities which are to be met with in most of those which affect that name. Even Homer himself, to whom nothing has appeared as yet "aut simile aut secundum," has puerilities which are only to be excused, as Horace says, by supposing him sometimes to nod. Virgil, more equal throughout, is less sublime; but was so blind an idolater of his great master that, notwithstanding the judgment for which all ages have given him credit, he even copied some of his most glaring faults. Every schoolboy can point out the bombast and feeblenesses of Lucan, Statius, and Silius Italicus, notwithstanding the fine and even sublime passages which are to be found in them all, especially in the first.
Of the modern Italian poets, Boiardo and Ariosto were writers of romance in verse, and as such, however engaging, are hardly subject to the rules of criticism. Tasso's Gierusalemme Liberata is more regular, and has many beautiful and affecting passages, but seldom rises to sublimity. The same may be said of the Portuguese Camoens, whose subject indeed is less generally interesting than the others'. Voltaire's Henriade is more approved by the judgment than the fancy. It is coldly correct, and though it cannot be denied to have beauties, few persons are tempted to search for them a second time.
In our own country the attempts in this difficult line of writing have not been fortunate, always excepted the noble poem of Milton, which shines, among all which have appeared since Homer, "velut inter ignes Luna Minores." Yet it is far from being free from defects, both in the design and execution of it; and like Homer, "aliquando domitat." Cowley failed both in his choice of a subject, and in his manner of treating it. To have read Blackmore requires more patience and perseverance than I am master of. Spenser's justly celebrated Fairy Queen, with infinite detached beauties, is merely an allegorical romance, and can hardly be considered as a whole. Leonidas, and the Epigoniad, "proximus sed longo proximus intervallo," are now but little known and seldom read: a sure proof of want of interest and merit. So that a perfect epic poem is still, and probably always will be, a desideratum in that fascinating art.
Now the work which gave rise to these desultory observations, though it does not arrogate to itself that lofty name, has perhaps as good a claim to it as many that have had more presumption. As the author however has not thought proper so to call it, I have no right to name it for him, but shall proceed to point out some of its most striking beauties and defects.
Nothing can be more engaging than the introduction and close of every book; and no reader, I believe, would wish these to be either shortened or altered. Both the thoughts and the versification are equally fine; and the art of the old bard in his applications of the narrative to his hearers is very pleasing and well imagined. The hero of the story itself appears to be Sir William of Deloraine, though he acts only a subordinate part in the conduct of it; and this perhaps may be deemed a fault, but some amends for it are made by the exquisite delineation of his character, and the admirable manner in which it is supported throughout. He is precisely the Ferrau of Italian and French romance, excepting in the brutality of that giant; for the Scotch marauder could mourn over a fallen enemy; and though he
Harried the lands of Richard Musgrave,
And slew his brother by dint of glaive,
he lamented the death of an honourable foe, and would have given his lands to have redeemed his life. The whole of his character is pourtrayed with a masterly hand, and the contrast between him and Cranstoun, the exact counterpart of the gallant and courtly Knight of Charlemagne, or the Round Table, is drawn with great skill. When they engage, the one thinks of his mistress, and ejaculates a prayer; the other has no mistress, and knows no prayer; but,
He stoop'd his head and he couch'd his lance,
as the only preparations necessary for the combat.
The most interesting and highly-wrought passage at the whole poem is Deloraine's journey to Melross Abbey and the visit to Michael Scott's tomb there. The whole description of the abbey, of the wizard himself, (who seems to exist in a state somewhat similar to that of the Vampyres in Hungary,) and of Deloraine's aged conductor, is superior to any thing of the kind that has appeared in modern poems, and perhaps would not lose by a comparison with many of those which are most esteemed among the ancients. It forms several separate pictures adorned with the most vivid and brilliant colouring; and they are so put together as to form a well-blended whole, in which all the parts unite, and without any one of which it would be incomplete.
Thus, for instance, their progress through the cloisters, where
The pillar'd arches were over his head,
And under his feet were the bones of the dead,
however common the fact may be to every ancient church, shews the author to have possessed a truly poetic genius; of which one great part is the being enabled to seize upon striking and affecting images, drawn from common occurrences or objects that may be seen every day, and yet are passed unnoticed by vulgar minds.
The beauties of this poem are to be seen in almost every page, while its faults, (for it is not wholly exempt from defects,) are thinly scattered over the surface, "rari nantes in gurgite vasto," neither glaring nor offensive. It is the part of just criticism however, though its least pleasing office, to notice them as well as its excellencies. The most important of them relates to the machinery; and here a violation of the well-known rule of Horace, "Nec Deus intersit," &c. is but too apparent. The dialogue overheard by the Grammered Countess between the two river sprites, concerning Margaret's marriage, is needless, because the information might have been conveyed both to her and the reader by more obvious means; and it is unpoetical, because it is a violent use of supernatural assistance (not to be resorted to without necessity,) and even such as, I believe, forms no part of the local superstition of the Lowlands.
In the tragedy of Douglas, Home, in his fine description of the storm, introduces a similar supernatural bring to heighten the horrors of it.
And loud and shrill
The angry spirit of the water shriek'd.
But I doubt whether there be any authority for supposing that the river spirits meddle in the domestic concerns of the mansions on their banks, or meet to gossip about the intermarriages of the families which inhabit them. And the same learning that enabled the Countess to interpret their conversation, would have assisted her also to gain the requisite information without their help.
But the machinery of the greatest length, as well as consequence, is that of the magic book. This is so well described; its consequences are so striking and wonderful; the purport of it is concealed beneath a veil so thick, and its mystic contents are so darkly alluded to, and still left in that state of unexplained horror which so powerfully affects the mind, that few readers of taste will be inclined to object to the introduction of it. Yet it has been observed that it is not of use towards the conduct of the story, adequate to the eagerness of the Countess to possess it. And so far as to the furtherance of her schemes only, this is true; for the effect it produces is directly contrary to what she wished. But that magic art should deceive its votaries is very consonant to poetical justice; and it was only by the agency of the book that the catastrophe of the narrative, viz. the marriage of Cranstoun and Margaret is produced. For it was through the power of the book that the "young Heir of Branksome" was stolen, and that Cranstoun was enabled to personate Deloraine, conquer Musgrave, and redeem the boy; which was the only way of inducing the Countess to consent to the marriage.
And here it ought to be pointed out, with respect to the moral conduct of the piece, how ingeniously it is contrived that the violent passions of the Countess, which led her to have recourse to those dark arts, which must not even be named, and for which the monk was to do a treble penance for having only "thought them his heart within," had the unlooked-for effect of completely defeating her own purposes.
In this respect therefore here was "dignus vindice nodus" for the use of machinery; no common means, no human persuasions could have induced her to consent to resign her hatred to the family of Cranstoun. The end of the drama could not have been attained but by the aid of magic.
The conduct of the dwarf, which has also been objected to, is to be defended upon the same principle. The book without him would have been useless; and he, though far from intending it, was a principal agent in conducting the poem to its destined conclusion. The dark obscurity in which his story is involved, both when he was lost and found, is highly poetical, and affords a delightful scope for the imagination.
As a minor blemish it may be observed, that the character of Margaret is not sufficiently prominent to excite much interest. There is nothing to distinguish it from any other; and therefore to most readers the recovery of the "young Heir" will seem an event of more consequence than her marriage.
It has also been mentioned as a fault, that there are no similies throughout the poem; but whether that can be so deemed, in a work which lays claim to no higher rank than that of a Minstrel's Song is, I think, at least doubtful. If the objection be well founded, it is one which only the judgment makes on reflection; and which the imagination, warmed with the beauty of the piece, and deeply engaged by the attention which it excites, can hardly stop to discover.
But there is another light in which this work has a claim to be considered, which is that of a narrative, meant to exemplify the curious system of Border manners. In this respect it is unrivalled: no history has yet appeared which gives so just an account, so interesting a picture of the lawless ravages of the Borders, which were equally a disgrace to both nations. With regard to these the romance has the singular advantage of being a true history as to the general facts, and the usual conduct of the Moss Troopers; and the characters of the two English leaders, Howard and Dacre, are admirably discriminated, and evidently drawn from the most authentic sources of information.